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Three Reasons Americans Should Be Concerned about the United Kingdom’s Online Safety Bill

Jennifer Huddleston

On the TV show Parks and Rec, libertarian character Ron Swanson takes a trip to London and famously quips, “History began on July 4 1776. Everything before that was a mistake.”

When it comes to issues like free expression online, it is easy for Americans to get the myopic view that we don’t need to worry about the impact of other countries’ regulations because we are protected by the First Amendment.The United Kingdom has been debating the “Online Safety Bill” that could have serious consequences for many internet companies. This sizable piece of legislation would create many new requirements for platforms that carry user generated content including search engines, messaging apps, and social media. Among these requirements include strict age‐​verification requirements and limiting certain types of “legal but harmful” content that raise significant concerns for the implications the bill would have on users’ privacy and speech. While the regulations will mostly be felt by U.K. internet users, the global nature of the internet means that the regulations will likely impact users more generally. With that in mind, here are three key reasons Americans should be concerned about what might happen if the United Kingdom passes the Online Safety Bill.

  1. It could undermine encrypted services

One of the key concerns about the Online Safety Bill is the way it would undermine encryption. This is because the bill disincentivizes the use of end‐​to‐​end messaging by incentivizing services to scan all messages for child sexual abuse imagery. While the intention of identifying the criminals behind this heinous act is noble, such a requirement would require platforms to screen all messages in the United Kingdom to prevent certain illegal content. In short it creates a guilty‐​until‐​proven‐​innocent standard for messages on encrypted services.

Many encrypted messaging services have opposed the bill and even stated they would cease services in the United Kingdom rather than compromise the level of privacy and security in this way. This could deny U.K. users access to popular apps like Signal and WhatsApp, which also make it more difficult for Americans and others to communicate and connect with their friends and family in the United Kingdom. For companies that did comply, the message screening requirement would certainly catch messages from American users to the United Kingdom, as well as impact any number of American services that host user‐​generated content links to the United Kingdom.

  1. Many of its provisions may be applied globally

While the First Amendment may protect Americans from many potential speech restrictions domestically, the actions of other countries can certainly impact the experience of American users because of the internet’s global nature.

Americans have previously experienced this with many of the privacy changes following the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, such as the increase in cookie pop‐​ups and being unable to access certain newspapers if traveling in Europe. We’ve also seen a similar international impact on American companies through the U.K.’s pro‐​competitive actions, such as blocking Meta’s acquisition of Giphy and, most recently, Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision.

If the Online Safety Bill were to become law, many companies will find themselves deciding if the cost of compliance will be too much to stay in the United Kingdom. For those that do stay, it may be easier to apply the same restrictions globally to ensure compliance. The result might mean that American users are subject to the same requirements around age verification and restraints on content moderation. This is particularly true if the proposal is read broadly enough to impact certain virtual private networks (VPNs) that would allow U.K. users to claim they were in another country.

  1. U.S. policymakers are looking to it as a model for youth online safety proposals in the United States

At a state and federal level, there has been much debate over potential youth online safety or privacy legislation. Policymakers behind these proposals are likely watching the debate over similar policies across the pond. In fact, during the debate over California’s Age Appropriate Design Code, one of the Online Safety Bill’s key proponents, Baroness Beeban Kidron, wrote positively of its similarities. In turn, recent American actions only further some of the U.K. legislation’s proponents’ ardent advocacy for the law.

However, policymakers should be cautious not to forget one key difference between the U.S. and the U.K.’s foundations: the First Amendment. In fact, the California law has already been challenged in court on First Amendment grounds, and other state or federal legislation would likely face similar legal challenges.

Still, in some cases, this has done little to dissuade policymakers who often have well‐​meaning intentions of protecting the next generation. But proposals modeled after the U.K.’s Online Safety Bill would diminish the privacy and benefits of the internet for all users, including the children that it claims to protect.

The Online Safety Bill has a whole plethora of concerns that many scholars have written about in great detail. If passed, it will have significant negative impacts on the speech and privacy of British internet users, but its broader impact will also likely reach America’s shores.

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